Kristen Strayer April 29 2020

(In)visible Threats: films and outbreak narratives


For over 100 years, films have gone to great lengths to approximate the spread of disease, from early US Public Health Service hygiene films that attempted to illustrate how one individual could transmit a disease to another (“How Disease is Spread”) to extolling medical heroes like Ibn Sina, who helped battle the ravages of the plague in 11th century Middle Asia (Avicenna,1957, Kamil Yarmatov). Films cannot show imperceptible pathogens, which are usually invisible and not traditionally cinematic, and find themselves in the realms of symbolism or metaphor, in which something else stands in for the spread. Most of these virus stand-ins are shown as menacing, traveling via bugs and animals, and of course, human bodies. More symbolically, diseases are shown as national threats, with the illness piercing the body of the (previous pure, usually Western) nation-states. The narrative constructions of viral illness find ways to represent infection without showing pathogens—which are of course invisible and not traditionally cinematic. Instead, films create hosts and embody them with conscious or unconscious menace.

In these “outbreak narratives,” as Priscilla Wald terms them, illnesses are spread from areas or peoples characterized as diseased, infected, impoverished, or deviant to normal, otherwise “healthy” societies. They personify infection in the bodies of others or make them into punishments for social or moral failings. From The Plague of Florence (Fritz Lang, 1918) to bat soup memes, these narrative give means to meaningless natural events and create societal scapegoats. In a world dominated and forever changed by COVID 19--an illness that has been politicized already all over the world--it may be productive to seek out those pieces that explore or challenge these outbreak narratives. This Spotlight highlights short films that confront and manipulate outbreak narratives, reconsidering how those stories are created and deployed.

In Wuhan Toronto (Jia Zhang, 2020), perhaps the first COVID film, two young women, one in Canada and one in China, separately experience the effects that the virus has on their lives. The film particularly lingers in Canada, where a Chinese student at university deals with the effects of racism in response to the disease. Her roommates, oblivious to the hardship of what happening in China, throw a virus party complete with masks and beer pong. By creating a dual point of view, the film re-imagines the narrative of threat to a story in which flippancy and ignorance becomes the threat to the emotional well-being of the national other. 

Wuhan Toronto (Jia Zhang, 2020)

The Border (Norman Tankivi, 2015), a short film about a post-apocalyptic border security agent, a man confronts his duty to keep the border impervious to outside threats from “the south.” A captain named Thomas is charged with creating snipers to shoot those trying to penetrate the border. When young cadet refuses to shoot, he attempts to force him calling upon the need to protect the border and citizen from a killer virus. The films setting and cinematography reinforces the absurdity of borders, except as modes of political and social control.

The Border (Norman Tankivi, 2015)

Apocalypse Norway (Jacob Rorvik, 2020), on the other hand, shows us a virus in movement but wrests the narrative from one of national threat. The lyrical, almost plotless short film shows six Scandinavian teenagers as they idyllically vacation from a virus outbreak. Both the adolescents and landscape are ethereal, mysterious, and motiveless. As the apocalypse encroaches on their idyllic world, the threat isn’t a foreign country or non-European immigrant but emerges from nature itself, with the menace erupting from the beautiful world that they are in. They primarily deal with the scourge by drinking, eating, and looking at their phones; they are blank observers, not motivated and willful subjects.  As such, they appear almost fatally unlucky, viewed not as the protagonists of an outbreak narrative but as perpetual bystanders.

Apocalypse Norway (Jacob Rorvik, 2020)

Finally, Daughters of Wolbachia (Ariel McCleese, 2019) turns bacterial infection into a necessarily and reasonable answer to human’s political misery. In the work, women bio-weaponize the Wolbachia bacteria taking its attributes of the preservation of the females of a species and the ability to turn males into females. The director, Ariel McCleese, refers to the process as the “liberation of the secondary infection” to produce a female world order. This new world is characterized by female violence and androcide; however, it is also imagined as primarily transformative, where the characters enter into a new and better world. Visually, both the female violence and the transformation are shown through blood, either through the violence of eradication or the blood of rebirth and transformation. Here, we are urged to celebrate our most elemental, bacterial selves.

Daughters of Wolbachia (Ariel McCleese, 2019)

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.